It has recently been shown that human neutrophils rapidly increase surface expression of membrane receptors for C3b (CR1) and C3bi (CR3) in response to chemoattractants and other stimuli. In the present studies, we used monoclonal antibodies and flow cytometry to assess the role of Ca2+ in this process. Stimulation with ionophore A23187 in the presence of 1.2 mM Ca2+ increased CR1 330% and CR3 650% compared with unstimulated cells at 37 degrees C. Because this indicated that increasing the cytosolic free Ca2+ caused increased receptor expression, we examined the role of Ca2+ in the response to other stimuli as well. Adding 1.2 mM Ca2+ or 5 mM EDTA to the media in which the polymorphonuclear leukocytes were suspended had no effect on the CR1 response to f-MLP or LTB4, whereas Ca2+ slightly enhanced and EDTA markedly inhibited the CR3 response to these stimuli. The effects of Mg2+-EGTA and EDTA were identical. TMB-8 (200 microM), which inhibits the release of Ca2+ from intracellular stores, completely blocked the increased expression of both receptors induced by fMLP or LTB4. Increased expression of both receptors was also prevented by the calmodulin antagonists chlorpromazine (50 microM) and trifluoperazine (10 microM), but not by chlorpromazine sulfoxide. Phorbol myristate acetate (0.1 ng/ml) increased CR1 230% and CR3 265%. Again Ca2+ and EDTA did not alter the CR1 response, whereas Ca2+ increased CR3 to 287% and EDTA reduced CR3 to 187% of control. TMB-8 (250 microM) completely blocked both CR1 and CR3 responses to this stimulus as well. Thus, release of intracellular Ca2+ is necessary and sufficient for increased CR1 expression in response to diverse stimuli, but maximal increases in CR3 expression require an additional influx of extracellular Ca2+. These results indicate that the mechanisms by which the surface expression of the two different complement receptors increase are different in their requirements for extracellular Ca2+. In comparison with the work of others, we suggest that the processes of increased complement receptor expression and secretion of granular enzymes may also differ.